"Oh My God! I'm my father!" my best friend screamed as he bolted into my dorm room. He had been shaving his beard and had left just the mustache to see how it would look. He ran straight to my bathroom and stood there staring at his reflection in the mirror.
"Your mirror is not malfunctioning, my friend," I said, as I looked over his shoulder, "you do look like your father." He quickly shaved off the mustache and headed back to his room. "That was way too scary," he said, "remind me never to do that again."
Parents: More Than Just Genes?
My friends and I talk about our parents all the time. As we slowly start to realize that they are not as bad as we thought, we have discovered that we not only resemble our parents physically, but in many ways act and interact like them. The other day I caught myself nervously fiddling with a pen the same way my father does. And I've always loved to work with my hands like my mother. But I wondered to what extent my actions and reactions are because of my "wiring," and to what extent it is learned. Do parents really affect the development of their child's character?
Development of Character
I think an anecdote from my childhood best illustrates an answer to this question. When I was in fifth grade, we were assigned a geography project, that if done properly could be finished in a week. We were given three weeks to complete it. The news of an assignment alerted my brain to be ready to work but the due date seemed so far away; my mind decided it wasn't worth the effort at this juncture and shut right back down. I remembered about the assignment just three days before it was due, and at that point was too panicked to accomplish anything. When my teacher saw that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, she called my parents.
That night, my parents sat me down and asked me if I had any assignments in school that I needed help with. I didn't know what to say. "Elie," my mother said in calm but firm voice, "we only want to help you." I began to cry. I told them about the assignment and that I was afraid I would fail. And they told me that my teacher had called because she had similar concerns. They explained that they were disappointed that I hadn't started the project on time or even asked for help, but were proud that I told the truth. For the next few hours we planned how I could complete the project on time. I did end up submitting it in on time and I didn't fail; but I didn't do too well, either.
It was a very powerful lesson, but it may never have taken root if their deeds hadn't paralleled their words. Seeing my father work into the late hours of the night and my mother return to school for a second degree was the necessary follow-up to the lesson.
I could say that my parents helped to significantly develop my character, but what does that really mean? Elizabeth Berger, MD, in her book Raising Children With Character, says that " [Character] is the sum of a person's responses to the profound polarities of human existence: love and hate, man and woman, life and death. And finally, character involves an inner struggle -- between work and play, self and others, a future goal and an impulse of the moment."
How Parents Can Effect Change
There is something to be said for one's specific genetic make-up. However, a 12-year study conducted by David Reiss, MD, of George Washington University Medical Center, as well as those cited by Daniel Goleman, PhD in his book Emotional Intelligence, have shown that children's genetic tendencies can be altered by the way others respond to them. As Reiss puts it in his book The Relationship Code, in which he describes his study, "biology is not destiny". For example, research indicates that if a shy child is coddled and sheltered, he will remain shy and distant. But if the parent encourages the shy child to interact with other children, he is bound to shed some of his bashful disposition, even if it is part of his genetic make-up.
In Emotional Intelligence, Goleman quotes Jerome Kagan, PhD, professor of developmental psychology at Harvard University, as having come to the same conclusion. "Those children who had become less timid by kindergarten seem to have had parents who put gentle pressure on them to be outgoing. Although this temperamental trait seems slightly harder than others to change...no human quality is beyond change."
Character, unlike temperament control, is taught not only by how the parent responds to the child, but also how the parent responds to others. Howard Klein, MD, a pediatrician and assistant professor of Developmental Pediatrics at the University of Maryland, while acknowledging other factors such as peer influence, says, "Close to 50% of a child's behavior can be traced back to the ways s/he sees their parents behave and interact." What parents do, and the attitudes with which they do it, lay the groundwork for the development of their child's values.
Parenting By Example
If a parent will lie about the age of their child to save on the entrance fee to an amusement park, the child will pick up on this. The parent never told the child that lying was okay. In fact, the parent may even have talked with the child about the importance of telling the truth. But the hypocrisy of his actions, will make a more profound impact on the child than anything he says.
A little while after he had hastily shaved his mustache and gone to sulk, my friend returned to shoot the breeze. He admitted to me that it really wasn't all that bad looking like his father. And in any case, there was not that much that he could do about it. Resembling his father physically, he said, was part of a package deal that included a strong sense of ethics and unwavering values that he was more than willing to accept.